Last week’s massive earthquake in western India has thrown in doubt Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s planned official visit to Japan this month — the first by a premier of the world’s most populous democracy in nearly 13 years.

Vajpayee’s plan is to make the five-day visit starting Feb. 10. Amid a thaw in frosty bilateral relations, he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and other Japanese political and business leaders, and have an audience with the Emperor.

But the earthquake, which struck only two days after the Cabinet formally decided to invite Vajpayee this month and could, by some estimates, eventually claim the lives of as many as 100,000 people, may force the Indian leader to postpone the trip, setting back diplomatic efforts to put soured bilateral ties back on a sound footing.

India’s nuclear tests in May 1998 plunged relations between Japan and India to one of their lowest ebbs in the post-World War II period. Pakistan, India’s neighbor and longtime archrival, responded to the first Indian nuclear tests in nearly a quarter of a century by detonating its own nuclear devices.

The tit-for-tat tests raised deep international concerns about the escalation of a nuclear arms race — and even a possible nuclear war — in volatile South Asia.

Japan, the only nation to suffer atomic bombings, was quick to harshly condemn the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests and press the biggest power in the South Asian region to join the 1996 Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, as soon as possible.

Assistance suspended

In a strong political gesture of protest against India’s nuclear policy, Tokyo also suspended official development assistance to New Delhi, with the exception of minimal amounts of grants-in-aid for humanitarian purposes.

Japan has been the world’s largest single aid donor for the past nine consecutive years. Before the economic sanctions were imposed, Japan was also by far the single biggest aid donor to India. Japanese ODA consists of low-interest yen loans, grants-in-aid and technical cooperation.

Relations between Japan and India took a significant turn for the better when Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited the South Asian country in late August. Mori was the first Japanese prime minister to visit in nearly a decade.

Both Japanese and Indian officials agree that Vajpayee’s planned Japan trip will be aimed at maintaining the momentum toward the development of friendly and stronger ties that was set off by Mori’s India visit.

“We cannot let once-grounded bilateral relations cruise on the same level after taking off last summer. Instead, the relations should continue to gain altitude,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, requesting anonymity.

A senior Indian Foreign Ministry official said, “India is very satisfied with a recent exchange of visits by high-level government officials of the two countries.

“Since Mr. Mori’s Indian visit, several Indian government ministers, including those of defense, telecommunication and information technology, have already visited Tokyo,” the official said, also asking for anonymity.

In his late-August meeting with Vajpayee in New Delhi, Mori pressed India again to sign the CTBT as soon as possible. Vajpayee pledged to so do in the future, but did not specify when. The Indian leader also promised to continue freezing fresh nuclear tests until the CTBT takes effect.

Despite the lack of significant progress on the nuclear issue, however, Mori pledged to extend fresh yen loans worth 19 billion yen (about $161 million), in an apparent effort to reverse the deteriorating trend in relations.

The fresh yen loans are for two projects that were already commenced several years ago with Japanese aid: a thermal power plant project in Simhadri, southern India, and a subway project in New Delhi. In fiscal 1996, which ended in March 1997, Japan provid-ed 19.8 billion yen for the power project in yen loans and 14.7 billion yen for the subway project.

The extension of 19 billion yen in fresh loans does not represent a full-scale resumption of Japanese ODA for India, however. An unlimited flow of Japanese ODA money into India will come only after New Delhi signs the CTBT.

Japanese officials explain that the government’s position since the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests has been to put on hold financing of any new projects while considering, on a case-by-case basis, additional yen loans for projects already started with Japanese aid.

One senior Japanese government official frankly acknowledged that until India signs CTBT, the two countries’ efforts to make bilateral ties flourish will have their limits.

India, meanwhile, seems well aware of how politically difficult it is for Tokyo to resume a full-scale extension of ODA to New Delhi.

“India’s signing of CTBT is a question of when and not a question of if,” the senior Indian Foreign Ministry official said. Vajpayee “will not ask for anything” during his planned Japan trip, including an early full-scale resumption of Japanese aid, the official said.

Three separate panels

Mori and Vajpayee agreed to set up three separate panels to promote cooperation between the two countries in various areas. The “wise” persons’ council, one of the panels, met for the first time in New Delhi earlier this week. The two countries are also preparing to hold the first meetings of two other panels — one on cooperation in the area of information technology and another for dialogue on security policy — this spring.

Expanding high-level security contacts between Japan and India could have significant implications for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, because China is expected to be among its main topics.

China and India are archrivals sharing a long border. China, an increasingly ascendant military as well as economic power in the Asia-Pacific region, is also widely seen as the biggest potential threat to regional security.

“Relations with India are very important for a strategic or geopolitical reason,” a senior Japanese diplomat said on condition of anonymity. Bilateral relations were upgraded to a new level with Mori’s Indian visit. Beyond just taking care of bilateral issues, Mori and Vajpayee agreed to promote “global partnership” between the two countries to jointly address preservation of the global environment, reform of the United Nations and various other tasks facing the international community.

During Vajpayee’s planned visit this month, Japan and India will try to “flesh out” an agreement reached last summer to foster “global partnership,” the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Mori’s India trip in late August came amid growing pressure from domestic political and business circles.

At a joint meeting in May, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s panels on foreign-policy affairs had decided to urge the Mori government to lift economic sanctions against India. Many of the panel members shared a deep concern that the Japanese sanctions policy had severally damaged otherwise friendly ties.

Cause for concern

Many Japanese business leaders were also apprehensive about the chilly ties with India, which they see not only as a potentially lucrative market of 1 billion people but also as a promising partner in the area of information technology.

Amid the ongoing globalization and information-technology revolution, many industrialized countries have turned to India as a source of IT-related personnel, such as computer software engineers, who are badly needed for industrialized countries’ economic growth.

Japan is no exception. A high-powered Japanese business delegation toured India in October. During his own Indian trip, Mori announced a training program for 1,000 Indian IT experts aimed at acquainting them with Japanese business practices and the Japanese language. He also revealed a plan to increase the number of multiple-entry visas for short-term visits by Indian specialists.

Mori also visited Bangalore, the bustling Indian version of the U.S. Silicon Valley, becoming the first Japanese premier to visit such major Indian cities.

Aftab Seth, the new Indian ambassador to Japan, said in a speech at the Japan National Press Club in November that the two countries could strengthen bilateral relationship in the IT area.

“Our two countries can find a very obvious synergy and an ability to work together with your great strength in hardware and our great strength in software,” Seth said, adding that bilateral cooperation in the IT sector can serve as a “visible symbol” of the two countries’ friendship in the 21st century.

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